Please welcome K Chess to The Qwillery as part of the 2019 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Famous Men Who Never Lived was published on March 5, 2019 by Tin House Books.
TQ:Welcome to The Qwillery. What is the first fiction piece that you remember writing?
K: It was definitely Buffy: the Vampire Slayer fanfiction about a violent home invasion.
TQ:Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
K: When I write short stories, I’m a pantser. I taught myself how to plot in order to complete this novel, my first! Intuition still plays a really important role in my writing, but now I know that I need structure to keep moving forward.
TQ:What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
K: How lonesome it is. Sometimes when the words are flowing and I know they’re good, I get excited and want to stop writing to tell everyone! And on other days, when I’m not creating anything worthwhile, I feel bored and disappointed with myself.
TQ:What has influenced / influences your writing?
K: Famous Men Who Never Lived was inspired by the Heinlein paperbacks at my grandma’s house, by Svetlana Alexievich’s phenomenally moving and interesting book, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, and by the way it feels to live in a big, anonymous city.
TQ:Describe Famous Men Who Never Lived using only 5 words.
K: Extradimensional refugee rails against fate.
TQ:Tell us something about Famous Men Who Never Lived that is not found in the book description.
K: It’s got a book-within-a-book! Famous Men Who Never Lived follows a woman named Hel who is part of a group of Universally Displaced Persons from an alternate version of New York who is trying to recover the last copy of a sci-fi book from her home called The Pyronauts (all that is in the official description). But I wove sections from that fictional book into Hel’s story. It was fun to figure out how to do that, how to make the inner and outer layers speak to each other.
TQ:What appeals to you about writing Science Fiction?
K: Science fiction allows us to see problems from our own reality in a different way. Sometimes it’s easier to access imagination and empathy through a fantastical premise.
TQ:What sort of research did you do for Famous Men Who Never Lived?
K: Because the alternate universe I invented for this book split off from ours at the beginning of the 20th century, I had to research whether certain things (the Manhattan Bridge, lite beer, the word “gay”) existed in 1909 or not. I also researched crime! I learned about how to follow someone without being noticed, how to break a window without hurting yourself, and what happens to you in NYC after you get arrested.
TQ:Please tell us about the cover for Famous Men Who Never Lived.
K: The designer, Jakob Vala, used an experimental photo of a New York scene by Stephanie Jung. Jung says her work is about “time and cauducity.” Vala paired that with a bold white retro/futuristic typeface. I love how atmospheric it is. And there’s an Easter egg -- if you have the book, explore the jacket carefully!
TQ:In Famous Men Who Never Lived who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
K: I had a hard time writing about Vikram, who denies his pain or expresses it quietly. Writing about Hel, who reacts through flamboyant bad behavior was easier.
TQ:Does Famous Men Who Never Lived touch on any social issues?
K: Yes -- it’s about immigration bias and how we treat strangers. Its characters are torn between conflicting pressures to preserve their home culture or give it up to assimilate. These are very real issues for people in 2019.
TQ:Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Famous Men Who Never Lived.
“Once the Gate achieved full power, I couldn’t see them anymore. I only had eyes for the gap, the blue hole. I couldn’t see them when I stepped into it, into pearlescent haze like an oil slick suspended in the air, when I stepped from one snowy day and into another. But I knew they were in the crowd, watching the ninety-nine of us leave them behind.”
K: Famous Men Who Never Lived is a standalone, so I’m working on a completely unrelated novel now. I’m going to stop googling myself so much and get back into a weekday writing-at-5AM routine!
TQ:Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
K: Thank you! It’s been real.
Famous Men Who Never Lived
Tin House Book, March 5, 2019
Hardcover and eBook, 324 pages
For readers of Station Eleven and Exit West, Famous Men Who Never Lived explores the effects of displacement on our identities, the communities that come together through circumstance, and the power of art to save us.
Wherever Hel looks, New York City is both reassuringly familiar and terribly wrong. As one of the thousands who fled the outbreak of nuclear war in an alternate United States―an alternate timeline―she finds herself living as a refugee in our own not-so-parallel New York. The slang and technology are foreign to her, the politics and art unrecognizable. While others, like her partner Vikram, attempt to assimilate, Hel refuses to reclaim her former career or create a new life. Instead, she obsessively rereads Vikram’s copy of The Pyronauts―a science fiction masterwork in her world that now only exists as a single flimsy paperback―and becomes determined to create a museum dedicated to preserving the remaining artifacts and memories of her vanished culture.
But the refugees are unwelcome and Hel’s efforts are met with either indifference or hostility. And when the only copy of The Pyronauts goes missing, Hel must decide how far she is willing to go to recover it and finally face her own anger, guilt, and grief over what she has truly lost.
K Chess was a W.K. Rose Fellow and her short stories have been honored by the Nelson Algren Award and the Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA from Southern Illinois University and currently teaches at GrubStreet. She lives with her wife in Boston, MA.